Movie Review ~ The Worst Person in the World

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young woman navigates the troubled waters of her love life and struggles to find her career path, leading her to take a realistic look at who she really is.

Stars: Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Herbert Nordrum, Hans Olav Brenner, Helene Bjørnebye, Vidar Sandem

Director: Joachim Trier

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Do you want to know what’s the best feeling in the world for someone that watches a ton of movies? When one comes along you know is excellent within the first few minutes and you realize that there are two hours left to enjoy it. That’s what I thought while still breathing in the opening beats of the Norwegian romantic comedy, The Worst Person in the World because there was a certain quality in the way director Joachim Trier introduces us to Renate Reinsve’s central character where you could feel you were in good hands. For months, all I had heard was how much people loved this spirited picture with the depressing-sounding title. It’s anything but a negative experience, by the way, and one you must make an effort to catch even if it miraculously goes unnoticed when Oscar nominations are announced this coming week.

Trier’s tale is told in twelve chapters, along with a prologue and an epilogue, and follows Julie’s journey over four years as she angles through the mysteries of life and love. It’s a brilliant way of reaching across multiple generations because anyone could find something relatable inside one or more of these minor episodes of life on which we get to drop in.   Better than that, there’s little going on that’s extraordinary, which sets Julie’s life apart from ours in any way more significant than the fact she lives (for most of us reading this) in another country halfway around the world. Julie makes the same mistakes, achieves identical goals, tumbles over similar roadblocks, and walks the same tightrope of wanting to please everyone but growing to understand why it can be important to please yourself first.

Note that this is described as a romantic comedy, and you better believe the film has its fair share of downright hilarious moments, mainly derived from situational relationship conversations that are brutally honest or familiar enough that you giggle because if you didn’t, you might cry. It’s highly observant in how it nails down the way we talk to our significant others at the beginning of our relationship and how those conversations change over time and depending on the audience. Watching Julie interact with her boyfriend Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie, Personal Shopper) alone vs. in front of his parents or friends is quite telling. When she finds a different love in Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), that communication is different as Julie has adapted to her new companion. 

Every fork in the road Julie takes isn’t going to agree with the audience coming to The Worst Person in the World. Still, Trier seems prepared for that and buoys ill-advised distractions with gentle comeuppances that reinforce the solid skin Julie develops or affirmations to confirm that following her gut was the right choice. Speaking of correct decisions, Reinsve joins a healthy list of actresses giving memorable performances this past year, and she grounds the movie even in some of its weaker sections that don’t quite work as well as others, like an extended trip on psychedelic mushrooms. I feel like I’ve seen enough of these tripped-out sequences recently, and adding another to the mix, especially in the middle of an otherwise strong movie that was flowing so well, was jarring. However, that sequence does herald a turning point for the movie, and the final few episodes that close out Trier’s film bring Julie’s story to a moving, but I think, triumphant end.

As we were nearing the end of 2021, I wasn’t exactly sure that the year had been as successful as it needed to be after the strangeness that was 2020. The films I liked the most in 2021 didn’t seem to catch fire like the more notable blockbuster titles, and it feels like the art-house film and even the mid-level budget movie were dead and in the ground. I’ve had my faith restored a little during the first weeks in 2022, though, and it’s due mainly to the 2021 releases like The Worst Person in the World that took a little time to come my way. Along with The Worst Person in the World, Parallel Mothers and Drive My Car have all scored highly for their skill in telling the right story at the right time. That they all happen to be foreign entries is an interesting wrinkle. Check out all three and start with this one.

Movie Review ~ A Hero

The Facts:

Synopsis: Rahim is in jail for a debt he can’t repay. When a plan to restore his reputation and family goes awry, he unexpectedly gains unwelcome notoriety through a misunderstanding that spirals out of control.

Stars: Amir Jadidi, Mohsen Tanabande, Fereshteh Sadr Orafaee, Sahar Goldoost, Maryam Shahdaie, Ali Reza Jahandideh, Ehsan Goodarzi, Sarina Farhadi, Farrokh Nourbakht

Director: Asghar Farhadi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Looking at the scope and scale of the nominees that compete for the Best International Feature Film Oscar each year, it’s a remarkable achievement to find yourself nominated. I mean, consider that compared to the relatively small number of films deemed eligible in the other categories, many from only English-speaking countries. To get enough voters not just to see your movie, be moved by it, vote it higher than dozens of others, and then narrow it all down to five nominees? Yeah, that’s a big deal. Now consider the directors who have films that have shown up in this category multiple times. Going further, think of those that have won…and more than once. It’s a smaller number than you might think, and Iranian-born filmmaker Asghar Farhadi is one of them.

Coming into 2011 with an almost sure thing with the universally loved A Separation (which was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay in addition to winning the, as it was then called, Best Foreign Language Film Oscar), Farhadi was back at the ceremony in 2016 to win again with The Salesman. I liked both of those films but felt that all the early praise for them robbed me of my full enjoyment at the surprise of discovering them on my own. While Farhadi has been at the helm of several movies between his Oscar wins and last directed Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz back in 2018, it seems that it could be his time to return to the ceremony…and A Hero would justify the recognition by the Academy.

While it may not rise to the same level for some as the earlier films, which established Farhadi as a director of great esteem, A Hero does assert his talent for telling stories using complex characters in leading roles. Preferring to expose the flaws in us all, with A Hero Farhadi is documenting how good intentions can spiral out of control and wind up doing more harm than good. As Rahim Soltani (a shatteringly good Amir Jadidi) finds out, the more he embellishes a lie he’s designed with innocence, the further he paints himself into a corner from which he can’t get out of without damaging the intricate work he’s done on himself to impress others.

In jail for failing to pay back a debt, Rahim is released on his own recognizance for a small stretch to make arrangements to repay the debt.  While he’s out, the plan he had previously made with his love Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldoost) to use the gold coins she’s found in an unclaimed handbag to pay his debtor backfires due to the cost of gold decreasing. Pivoting and attempting to avoid being questioned about the coins by his suspicious sister, Rahim tries to find the bag’s owner from within prison and hopes a reward may be offered. When the bag is picked up by the rightful owner (who promptly vanishes) and Rahim becomes a celebrity due to his purported selfless heroism for returning the coins and not stealing them, it becomes his literal get out of jail free card. 

Used as an example by the prison, his family, and a local charity as an example for reform, Rahim’s story is soon questioned. Those with a stake in his actions that got him to this place want answers. His debtor still wants to be paid, and the charity would like to find out more information about the woman who picked up the bag and, more importantly, learn more about how and when Rahim came into possession of the bag in the first place. With a learning-disabled son to provide for, a lover to protect, and his freedom on the line, Rahim charts a dangerous course ahead to solve a mystery of his creation before the clock runs out on the goodwill being bestowed on him.

Moral questions like these, deeply complex ones at that, are hard to come by in mainstream films, which is why Farhadi’s movie is so much appreciated. Not only does A Hero speak to the suspenseful lengths people are willing to go to get what they feel they are entitled to, but also how blindly others accept words as truth without any fact-checking before making up their minds. The film is abundant with questions that make for good post-discussion chatter with friends and posit what you would do in a similar situation. 

Movie Review ~ Ghosts of the Ozarks

The Facts:

Synopsis: In post-Civil War Arkansas, a young doctor is mysteriously summoned to a remote town in the Ozarks only to discover that the utopian paradise is filled with secrets and surrounded by a menacing, supernatural presence.

Stars: Thomas Hobson, Phil Morris, Tara Perry, Tim Blake Nelson, Angela Bettis, David Arquette

Director: Matt Glass & Jordan Wayne Long

Rated:  NR

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  I’ve been through enough road trips across these glorious United States to wind up at some national monument or weird attraction that will always share one common thing. The “short introductory video.” You all know exactly what video I’m talking about. It’s the inevitable film, ranging anywhere from five (if you’re lucky) to thirty (always if you’re running late for somewhere else) that bars your way from moving forward into the main event you’ve already paid good money to see. Often produced before the tour guide was born, these are mini-masterpieces of balmy production quality, ripe acting, and directly stated dialogue that has precious little time for any subtext. When visiting Mt. Rushmore, the rickety film that greets you has surveyors arriving at the site, pointing up, and exclaiming, “We’ll build it…THERE!”  Subtle.

Memories of summers spent on vacations with my family seeing the country were stirred by Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long’s new film Ghosts of the Ozarks. That’s mainly because the look and feel of the film comes off like a lengthier version of one of these educational movies that get replayed every twenty minutes on a loop at the base of natural forming cave systems from California to Maine. Improperly being marketed as a horror/thriller but containing little of either element in its overindulgent runtime, it takes forever to get going and, even then, only sparks to life in small bursts of energy. This keeps one thankful for those players who manage to make something out of the screenplay from Long and third-billed Tara Perry.

Summoned by his uncle to the fledgling but remote town of Norfolk deep in the heart of the Ozarks, James (Thomas Hobson) hasn’t even made it to the outskirts before he encounters an unfriendly presence. A no-goodnik makes a play for his supplies but is usurped by the red plumes of smoke we come to learn signal the presence of dangerous predators lurking in the woods surrounding the walled compound. When he does make it town, he finds a simple community working on getting off the ground and putting aside any racial differences (James and his uncle are both Black) to be unified. The longer he stays in town and learns their customs, the more James realizes that not all is what it seems, and the lies that have been covered up as truths are coming back to haunt them all.

Had the film found more focus, I think the filmmakers behind Ghosts of the Ozarks might have capitalized better on the resources they had at their disposal. While it has an obvious digital look that can’t be avoided due to its high-definition rendering, the sets and costumes speak to a production design with enough creative energy to bring the viewer capably back to this period. The performances aren’t too bad, either. Though he’s laboring under a script that makes him far more inert than I think his character would have been, Hobson uses his arc to create an actual person gradually uncovering sad truths about those close to him. He and Phil Morris (Jingle All the Way) share several nice scenes, especially near the end when the action finally starts matching the advertising. Being a co-writer often results in reserving the extra juicy moments for yourself. Still, Perry is generous in doling out the emotional ups and downs, making room for more prominent names like Tim Blake Nelson (Nightmare Alley), Angela Bettis (Bless the Child), and even a typically weird David Arquette (You Cannot Kill David Arquette) to slide in and steal some scenes.

Never quite deciding what it fully wants to be, Ghosts of the Ozarks winds up being a head-scratcher for all the wrong reasons. Did I like the film? Not exactly. In the same breath, I’ll tell you it isn’t a bad film by any stretch of the imagination either. To say I wasn’t moved by it might be the worst thing I could report back, though Glass (who, like many involved with the film, wore multiple hats in the productions) composed a song for the film and replayed in the end credits that’s been stuck in my head ever since I saw it. Now that’s something I can’t say any of those road trip ranger station videos ever did for me.